Assumption Marketing

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Information is really a synonym for stuff, in that our preconceptions of what we expect to find and want to know dictate both our searching and interpretation. The world around is doesn’t come prequalified with meaning; the things we find, now called data because of the digital clarity which which many of our searches are realized, require us to interpret them before they qualify as knowledge.

In other words, anything we know is based on an initial assumption, and it proven by or disproven by how we go about testing it.

Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but I was reminded of it when I read the comments to my column in last week’s Advertising Age. I’d written that maybe our conclusions about the efficacy of YouTube video campaigns were based on faulty assumptions, and that we were accordingly measuring the wrong things in order to affirm that we’re right. Most of the comments declared that such campaigns were useful because consumers were different today than ever before, and that there were data to prove it.

One post offered up stats that juxtaposed “views” with sales and credited the former for the latter. Another one said that consumers had rejected traditional advertising (you know, the sort of thing that overtly tries to make a sales pitch) and that the data on declines in old media consumption proved it. I got a Tweet from a guy who works at the agency responsible for the campaign I specifically questioned (W+K’s work for Old Spice) who offered up the Effie Award that last round won as a datapoint of its righteousness.

In trying to tell me I was wrong, weren’t they demonstrating my very point? They found what they were looking for, and were happy to disregard or challenge any information that countered it.

The case (or platform) that directs the search and interpretation of data in support of social media campaigns relies on a number of assumptions, which go something like this:

  • Consumers used to be captives to advertising, which they endured in order to view broadcast TV programming (or radio and print, for that matter)
  • Brands told them things in a one-way fashion that they didn’t really want to know or use. It stifled their knowledge and choices
  • Once the Internet made distributed content possible, brands had to readjust and “earn” the consumer attention they once took for granted (or bought outright)
  • The way to do this is through producing entertaining content, with which consumers have relationships and/or become engaged
  • Further, consumers will not longer tolerate any sales messages (since they were so burned by brands actively trying to sell them things). So brands can’t provide any reasons to buy other than being likeable
  • Instead, brands should rely on the mechanisms of social experience and interaction — viewing, forwarding, liking — that allow consumers to reach their own conclusions about what brands they’ll buy

But these are all assumptions, not facts or truths inherent in observable reality. We could just as easily apply a different set of assumptions, like:

  • Consumers didn’t reject ads as much as they rejected nad ads that told them nothing or, worse, were filled with lies
  • They migrated to social media to talk to each other because such conversations, even in 140 characters between strangers, was more authentic and believable than the stuff marketers had been throwing at them
  • It wasn’t better as much as less bad, and the real things they liked to talk about was anything other than the things marketers wanted them to talk about
  • So what did marketers do? We chased them, and did so with stuff that is as inane and without meaning as the stuff we used to throw at them via traditional media only now it’s devoid of any admitted selling purpose or message
  • And we call their exposure to it “engagement” instead of “viewing,” and come up with complicated models to show how it gets us to the same result as all that bad ‘ol advertising used to (with data to prove it)
  • We’re blowing up brand value, loyalty, and any longterm sustainable marketing strategies because we’ve given up trying to sell anything

Change the assumptions and you change what data you look for, and how you interpret it.

My gut tells me that marketers have not truly figured out what to do about this P2P thing that is remaking their function. To just assume that the initial assumptions must first negate everything they once knew (or did) and that anything goes is just silly. Other operational areas of the enterprise have hatched different, more thoughtful assumptions while still staying true to their functions. Old rules made new. Numbers included, not disregarded. Maybe the implications for sourcing, manufacturing, and even staffing are more obvious, but they’ve proven that clear approaches don’t require overly complex or anti-intuitive reasoning.

We always knew how to entertain consumers, and it has always been easier to avoid asking for the sale. It’s nothing new. But if the new thinking is that we can strip away giving consumers any reasons to buy (other than love of our entertainment), then I wonder if were caught up in a set of assumptions that might not be as revolutionary or insightful as we believe…or as effective?

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